Blu-ray Review: I, Tonya

By , Contributor
At one point in every director's career, there comes a time when he gets the urge to make a Scorsese movie. Be it a respected auteur like David O. Russell (who went so far as to rope Robert De Niro into his despicable American Hustle) or a talented popcorn filmmaker like Doug Liman (with his recent American Made; entertaining but bogus), filmmakers of all stripes continue striving to mimic the visual style that made Scorsese king. The latest high profile attempt to remake Goodfellas is Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya.

First, a word on director Craig Gillespie and remakes: several years ago, Gillespie remade the '80s horror classic Fright Night and managed to improve upon the original. Starring the late Anton Yelchin, there was nothing flashy about the 2011 Fright Night. Just solid storytelling, bang-up acting, and some fresh twists on an old movie. No one went to see it and it was reflexively dismissed by '80s fanboys unwilling to give it a fair day in court.

Now with I, Tonya Gillespie has pushed himself onto the directors' A-list by recycling every audio/visual technique he could possibly crib from the master's toolkit. There's a certain amount of lurid entertainment value in this presentation of former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding's rise and fall during the late-'80s and early-'90s. But, for a variety of reasons, the hyper-kinetic visuals, whiplash editing, wall-to-wall pop rock soundtrack, and black-comic tone were the wrong directions to take. Perhaps not commercially- or critically-speaking—the film was an art-house hit and has raked in an impressive roster of awards (including three Oscar nominations and one win; Allison Janney, Best Supporting Actress). Apparently the potential audience for regurgitated Scorsese remains undiminished.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and her former husband and alleged co-conspirator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) tell their respective versions of the story in contemporary-set, talking-head documentary footage. Surely anyone alive in the early-'90s remembers what Harding was alleged to have done. During training for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Gillooly hired some low-level goons to "take out" competitor Nancy Kerrigan by whacking her in the knee. The subsequent investigation into Harding's culpability resulted in a worldwide scandal.

Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers take us back to the early days, with a young Tonya (Maize Smith as the toddler version, Mckenna Grace as a preteen) being coached at the local rink by mom LaVona (Janney). What unfolds over an indulgent two hours is a tale of abuse (physical and mental) and untreated mental illness all played for laughs. If Gillespie had any intention of sympathy or compassion, it was somehow omitted during the Oscar-nominated editing. We're invited to laugh as newly-nubile Tonya is groped by her stepbrother (read the real story there, then collect your jaw off the floor after realizing how Gillespie soft-pedaled this aspect of her life). Tonya is repeatedly victimized by her mother, then to more disturbing degrees by Gillooly, before she breaks the "fourth wall" and implicates every single viewer of the film as part of a cycle of abuse.

Well that's just rich. The entire intent of Gillespie's film is to re-enforce the "freak show" elements of Tonya Harding's personal life. And presumably in order to ensure the ability to use everyone's real names without being sued, he tones down the Gillooly abuse factor—clouding it in doubt and contradiction—to let the real bad guy off the hook. I can't speak for anyone else, but I always believed Harding's claims that she was in over her head and was largely a victim of circumstance. I found the Tonya-as-punchline era distasteful and now that era has returned to grand celebration with I, Tonya. Not "all" of us were complicit in the destruction of Tonya Harding's reputation so it takes unbelievable nerve on the filmmakers' part to have this movie version blame the entire world. 
i_tonya_feat.jpg Maybe that's how the real Harding feels, which is her right and privilege. However much abuse we see her endure on-screen in I, Tonya it seems very likely that it was worse in real life. Gillooly isn't the only one who gets off easy. LaVona is presented as a parent with absolutely one redeeming value: she pushes her kid to succeed at all costs. But otherwise she's monstrous. Yet the tone maintained by Gillespie remains harmless, allowing the audience to smirk at her audacious quirkiness. The material covered in I, Tonya is not feel-good in nature, but Gillespie, Rogers, and Robbie (who co-produced) want audiences to feel good about themselves in the smuggest way possible. Because it's easy to cop a superior attitude when the people you're watching are presented as trailer trash freaks.

The most interesting aspect of I, Tonya is Paul Walter Hauser as Gillooly's goon Shawn Eckhardt. Real footage of his interview with Diane Sawyer demonstrate's just how accurately Hauser captures the delusions exhibited by the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Kerrigan attack. It should be pointed out that, in another example of Gillepsie's willingness to hit below the belt, the real Eckhardt is one of the few I, Tonya characters no longer living. But even though that convenience may have allowed the producers a freer hand to pin the whole thing on him, that doesn't make Eckhardt any less fascinating as a character.

Universal Studios' new Blu-ray edition of I, Tonya is outfitted with Craig Gillespie's commentary, about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, and several promotional featurettes.

I, Tonya isn't without entertainment value, but it's so tacky in execution that it nearly cancels itself out. It's a mockery of the very real issue of abuse and the scars it leaves.


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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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